Now is the time for middle-aged activism

When you’re a teenager you’re angry about everything, without necessarily knowing why. Steven Baxter suggests that it’s time for the grown-up teenagers to get properly angry – the kind of anger that comes with intimate knowledge of everything that’s gone

It's strange how life hands you chances to do things you never thought you'd do again, but there I was on Saturday, on the lower end of an 8ft helium balloon, marching through Manchester to protest about the state of the NHS. Before then, my previous protesting experience, as a punter rather than an observer, came back in the 1990s, before my young mind had even had the chance to be disappointed by New Labour, protesting Michael Howard's Criminal Justice Bill.

Back then, as a callow, long-haired teenager in that awkward space between A-levels and a City and Guilds, protesting seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. The Government were taking away our Right to Rave, and we were Angry. Angry with a Capital A. We yelled, we chanted, we threw stuff (actually, I didn't; I left Hyde Park "before it all kicked off" to get home early for my dinner, but you know what I mean). We blew whistles. We read the Socialist Worker. We screamed and we bawled. We were young, and we thought it all meant something. Hell, maybe it did.

When you're a teenager you're pretty angry about everything. Politics is just one of the many thousands of things that seem utterly and irrevocably unfair; you gravitate towards it because you might as well find one more thing to complain about. Teenagers are built to rebel against nothing they can define because they simply must; at least, with political activism, it makes more sense, or seemed to at the time.

It might sound like I'm about to dismiss campaigning and protesting as something somehow callow or a phase you have to go through, but I'm not. In fact, I'm beginning to think quite the opposite. The teenagers are right to be angry. I don't know if they know they're right, or if they're just angry and happen to have stumbled on the right mood for our times, but I am more and more convinced of the righteousness of their cause.

The older I get, the more it's beginning to make sense again - the grumpiness, the anger, the disobedience. Maybe now is the time to get back involved, in a kind of middle-aged activism, the kind of anger that comes from knowing just what a miserable, lying professional foul the world is, and how much better it could be.

So there we were, marching through Manchester, a ragtag-and-bobtail collective of trade unionists, activists, protesters and - it irks to say this, but I'm very much afraid it is true - the Usual Suspects. Yes, SW were there. Yes, I got offered a paper. Yes, someone handed me a leaflet about The Death of Trotsky. Yes, there were calls for a General Strike, which will garner the well-meaning movement about as much public sympathy as a slap in the face. Yes yes yes, all of that, but wait: it's easy to dismiss this kind of stuff by looking at the clichés and thinking it represents a simplistic identikit of the aims and objectives of those who dare question the happy neoliberal consensus of austerity first, everything else later. But what if they're right? What if it is worth stopping the NHS from slipping into the meat-grinder? What if there is a better way than cutting everything, privatising everything and outsourcing everything?

It wasn't just us making a noise (thank you, PCS samba band) that chilly Saturday: there were others taking to the streets, for UKUncut to protest Starbucks' buffet tax options, against the Scientology shop in town, and so on. A lot of people are angry. A lot more, you might argue, ignored all the fuss, the noise, the banners and balloons; they carried on sipping their dishwater lattes and filling their heaving plastic bags with Christmas shopping gifts now, playing chicken with the overdraft limit later.

True enough, I suppose. There is apathy everywhere, and maybe only pockets of activism to try and stir the bewildered Christmas shoppers from their numb slumber of melting plastic and payday loan sharks. I don't know if the tide is turning, or if anything will change anytime soon due to getting out on the streets and making a noise about it.

But. oh, I don't know. When we come to look back on this time, when everything relatively decent that we managed to get from the postwar settlement was dismantled and chucked away, do I want to think I didn't do anything about it? Or can I, at least, say that I did something, that I stood up and I said, enough is enough?

Even if it is just a feeble attempt to save what can't be saved, I think you have to try. Probably the teenage me, who took part in that other protest all those decades ago, wouldn't understand, but I do: you have to try. Not because you think you'll win, but because you simply have to try. Because if you don't, the only person you can blame for the way your world turned out is yourself.

Get marching.

 

If you don't try, who will you blame for how the world works out? Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses